When Almost Nobody Had to Smile for the Camera

Ralph Northam’s yearbook page.

My wife and I have three grandchildren, ages three to six, and over the past week we’ve seen about 40 photographs and 10 videos of them doing everything from celebrating a friend’s birthday to picking apples to falling asleep next to the dog. Everyone in our family carries an iPhone and takes pictures almost reflexively.

I grew up in what’s called the silent generation, born from 1928 to 1945, and one way we were silent was almost no one ever said “Smile for the camera.” From when I was born in 1934 to graduating from a Wisconsin high school in 1952, my guess is I was photographed by my family six times. My dad had a demanding job and wasn’t home a lot, my mother had her hands full with five kids—taking pictures was not something we did.

All our aunts, uncles, and cousins lived nearby—if we took a picture, who would we send it to? And if we did take a picture, it’d probably be a week before we took the film to a drugstore and it got developed and we picked up the prints. Why bother?

In the 1950s the Polaroid, an instant camera, was developed but it took a long time before the pictures were high quality enough for people to stop using film. Then came today’s digital cameras.

With many people now carrying iPhones, it’s estimated that about 1.5 trillion pictures will be taken this year. And with all kinds of photo manipulation now easily done, many of the pictures won’t really show what someone or something really looks like.

Many photojournalists, looking for very high quality, continued to favor 35mm cameras though now digital cameras have pretty well taken over journalism.

Politically, the trend toward making it easy to take lots of pictures hasn’t always been a plus. Ask Ralph Northam, the governor of Virginia, or Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada.




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